With the Buffalo Sabres holding a record of 23-14-6 to this point, the 2018-19 season has brought with it a few pleasant surprises. Johan Larsson looks rejuvenated and extremely effective in his current role, and Nathan Beaulieu has proven valuable after a less-than ideal showing last season, but perhaps the most pleasant surprise has come with the meteoric rise of rookie defenseman and offseason acquisition, Lawrence Pilut.
Alright, maybe it’s not really a “surprise” per se. I mean, he was named the SHL’s Most outstanding Defenseman last season. While there was a significant buzz when the team announced that they had reached an entry-level agreement with the 22-year old, it was unclear just how much of an immediate impact he would have on the 2018-19 campaign. Fans were just a year removed from the arrival of another puck-moving European defenseman in Victor Antipin, a player who came to Buffalo with quite a bit of intrigue only to return to the KHL the following summer, so their cautious optimism was understandable.
That’s not to say that Pilut and Antipin are (or were at any point) comparable players. Antipin was three years older than Pilut when he signed prior to last season, and they transitioned from completely different leagues. Regardless, the adjustment from Europe to North America isn’t the same for everyone. So, while fans were certainly excited to obtain another young addition to an already respectable stable of up-and-coming blueliners, there was still uncertainty regarding his NHL ceiling, and how long it would take him to reach it.
Most, (if not all) of the skepticism was squashed in short order when Pilut began lighting up the AHL immediately upon his arrival. Starting the season with the Rochester Amerks, he registered 22 points in 16 games before being called-up for his NHL debut on November 30. Since then, Pilut hasn’t returned to Blue Cross Arena, and should he continue to perform at his current rate, he’ll probably never go back. His five points in 12 games with the Sabres thus far is impressive for a player getting his first taste of NHL action, but his effectiveness becomes even more evident when you examine his underlying numbers.
Individually, he’s posted a relative Corsi of 3.01 while receiving a zone-start rate of 48.28. Even more intriguing however, is the positive effect he has had on his teammates, namely Rasmus Ristolainen. As a duo, they’ve made for what is arguably the best tandem that Phil Housley has deployed this season.
In exactly 124 minutes of ice time together, the Ristolainen and Pilut combination has posted a Corsi-for of 53.28. On its own, that’s pretty good, but without the young Swede alongside him, Ristolainen’s Corsi-for drops significantly, down to 46.82. Now, that’s not a shot at Ristolainen, but a testament to just how well Pilut’s has complimented his veteran counterpart. After watching the team’s defensive workhorse serve alongside several different (and perhaps over-matched) partners over the last few seasons, it’s refreshing to see that the organization was able to find someone who compliments him as well as Pilut does.
For as long as Housley elects to keep them together, you’d have to imagine that Pilut’s ice-time will see a gradual, yet significant bump during the second half of the year. Based on how we’ve seen him handle the workload of players like Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thomspson, Housley has stuck to his strategy of easing his young guns into larger roles. We’ve also seen him reward said players for strong performances, as evidenced by Thompson’s upcoming opportunity alongside Jack Eichel on the top line.
#Sabres lines at practice:— Joe Yerdon (@JoeYerdon) January 10, 2019
Elie an extra, do not see CJ Smith here
The same goes for Pilut who, for some reason, was a healthy scratch for two games at the end of December, but has since been rewarded with an opportunity on the top-pairing. He’s also still skating on the team’s second power-play unit which again, represents a significant vote of confidence from behind the bench. Barring injury or a string of really awful performances, Pilut should not, and likely will not see the inside of the press box again this season.
Considering how quickly he has acclimated to the big league, his fluidity and positional intelligence are really fantastic. On top of his impressive statistical performance, watching an undrafted rookie free agent step into the best league in the world and appear not only competent, but dare I say refined, is really exceptional. His ability to hit the tape on breakout passes (and his vision in general) is something that spectators have yearned for on a team that has been one of the worst in the league in that regard for some time.
Yes, there are still parts of his game that need to be developed, and granted, he’s only been with the franchise for half of a season, but seeing what he’s been able to do in such a short period of time should inspire a lot of confidence from the fan base as to the caliber of player he could become. A healthy portion of the Sabre faithful have actually started to float Brendan Guhle’s name out there as a potential trade chip, which is a testament to the organization’s newfound depth on the blue line. Without the addition of Pilut, we might not be so keen on trading a player who was once widely regarded as the top defensive prospect in Buffalo.
Amazing what a couple of well-placed Swedes can do. Shout-out to the draft lottery balls, and of course, Sabres’ assistant general manager Steve Greeley who was the one who kept tabs on, and pursued Pilut last season (and ultimately convinced him to come to Western New York). The road ahead is long and there is work left to be done, but early returns indicate that Botterill and the gang struck gold with this acquisition.